Christianity and IP

Some time ago, I had to decide whether or not to use a friend’s original copy of Windows on a used computer. As a Christian, I actually had to pray, "Lord, what do I do?"

I resolved that particular internal dilemma in the short term, when I realized the computer had originally been bought with Windows. So effectively I was just reinstalling what had already been paid for. That was as far as my conscience would go then, but I started to examine the whole issue:

No matter how bad his business plan or his wheels are, unless he is a complete imbecile, one thing we can be sure of is that by the time 25 years are up, he is going to be running the biggest business on planet earth. Big enough, probably, to influence politicians enough to add another 25 years to the patent monopoly.

"Pirated" wheels are everywhere, of course, as people need them. The news corporations, whose printing or airwave monopolies are granted in similar manner, report regularly that people have been killed by "dangerous pirated wheels," that they are a menace to society and a threat to the "legitimate" economy. Believing this, most of these "pirates" have vaguely guilty consciences, half believing themselves to be thieves while throwing up a few weak excuses. Many decent people with clear (but also ill-informed) consciences and limited means, just walk everywhere. There are calls for the government to provide these people with wheels to make "society more just." There has been some delay however, due to a related lobbying corruption scandal involving affiliates of the Wheel Maker set to benefit from the resulting government contracts.

As we imagine this scenario, I wonder how many would join me in hoping that there would be at least some, with clear consciences, who see right through the whole scam and make just as many wheels as they want and share or sell them freely to their friends?

Think about it. Do you really believe that every wheel became the moral or "intellectual" property of the inventor?

It was there all the time in God’s creation – the "inventor" just discovered it. Certainly of course, any wheels he made himself were his own. But if one was purchased, in the absence of a special agreement, or even if a wheel was just visually observed – would there be anything wrong with duplicating wheels with one’s own materials?

The real advantage the wheel inventor had was being first. He could have made some money just from that. If he was also a good wheelwright, maybe he could be in big demand. But he certainly should not have been able to build a global monster corporation all because the force of the state backed his monopoly.

Now let’s get up to date:

When a CD is purchased, money is put down and a product is received. I submit that there is no proper lease/non-distribution agreement. If there was, it would indeed be dishonest to violate an agreement voluntarily entered into.

A key moral issue here is the legitimacy of any agreement.

Most governments recognize something called "constructive notice." For example, this means that if a business sticks "LLC" or "Ltd." after its name and you become a customer or supplier, you are taken to have agreed that the owners can dodge their debts to you ("limited liability") if it asks the government for permission (declares bankruptcy, etc.). There may be other reasons, but to incorporate for this reason is an immoral choice made by the owners to join in this alliance with the State. It is perfectly possible to operate without incorporation and there are good-sized businesses which do not. In the US at least, churches are free to operate without incorporation also and an increasing number do so.

Another form of "constructive notice" is the small print that comes with a product like a CD. Does this constitute a real agreement?

Of course not – it is one-sided. You could equally write "sold, absolutely" on your own sales receipt and call that an agreement. On the internet, the same goes for "click here to accept terms." With no less moral legitimacy you could, prior to purchase, send an e-mail stating your terms and that if they did not prevent the transaction, take it as agreed to.

It is perfectly acceptable in private business to enter into proper, signed or verbal, nondisclosure agreements. Software enhancements are often done in this way. But mass sellers do not require this, it would hit mass sales and it is practically impossible to obtain agreements preventing purchaser's friends or third-parties accessing and copying software or music/video.

This is the basis of a big-business/big-government alliance that affects many areas of life and business. It is one pillar of our modern hierarchical corporate state – along with forced limited liability, monopoly central banking (huge loans to favored corporations with money created from thin air), zoning, "eminent domain," land use control and of course taxes, regulations and mandates. These and other factors have created the trend of big business getting bigger along with its ally, big government.

Economically and politically this is "fascism." Contrary to socialist PR, fascism is not the opposite of socialism. Superficially, socialists do point out the errors of big business. However their solution is not liberty, but merging everything into one mega monopoly corporation in the vain idolatrous hope that it will not behave like one, if it is renamed "government." One corporation to rule them all is not the solution to corporate abuse.

So now let us look at another key moral issue at stake: If I sold you an item without a special agreement, is that not final? Does it not belong to you, rather than the government or to me? Certainly it does and you would have every right to do with it as you please. At a minimum, I would expect a sharp rebuke if I tried to control what you do with it afterward.

This is why encryption keys, serial numbers and hardware/dongle dependency for mass-market software, while permissible of themselves, are invariably a manifestation of an un-free market. It goes against the nature of things that can be easily duplicated. A business model that does not take into account the reality that, with a click of a mouse (or at most a few lines of code) data can be duplicated, is just not sound. It inevitably involves threatening customers that the government will act against them, should they decide to investigate the software code of their purchase, or make any changes to (i.e., "crack") the program they have purchased or been given.

Sellers are on a more solid moral foundation when selling subscriptions for support, upgrades and enhancements from one convenient, reliable, up to date and virus-free source. Just like the Linux operating system vendors, some of whom are running moderately sized profitable businesses. As a reaction to the UN-free, proprietary legal environment, this software functions under a license called the Gnu Public License. This and also the Creative Commons license effectively turns the law back on itself. This is a most commendable development which ensures users' legal right to copy, share and improve freely. It is also true that the hostile legal environment can limit market discipline, with mixed motives among often voluntary programmers – i.e., not always just to satisfy users.

But if a seller does go the "proprietary" route (acting as if it owned the data on other's computers) and the software gets hacked/cracked (as it surely will), it really is their own fault. They are then left to hope the majority (sometimes a 10-1 plus majority) who are cracked software users feel satisfied, scared or guilty enough to send some money or make a purchase anyway. But if a seller tries to put users under surveillance by requiring personal details they really have no business with; or forces them to seek permission every time they upgrade their computer – users are going to resist all the more.

Is it really right to blame hackers/crackers, who are not committing some actual harm like stealing money from an account or damaging a system? If it is simply duplicating software and bypassing serial numbers, are they not merely adjusting code on their own computers and sharing it with others? It is true there are some criminal and morally confused elements among hackers. But so it is with any unjust law – call to mind Prohibition in the USA… this attracted criminal elements as well as ordinary people.

Even supporters of "intellectual property" become especially annoyed by the obnoxious, tyrannical coercion of the government/corporate monopoly and the fascist police state methods required to enforce the granted monopoly. To give recent examples: putting Internet users under surveillance; demanding private records from ISPs; then threatening or prosecuting 12-year-old girls on the "evidence," and setting up anonymous "rat on your neighbor" call lines.

The moral discussion of "intellectual property" often brings up the word "stealing." More recently, corporate fascists have claimed "file sharing is communism."

If we believe in private property then we must accept that what is ours is so absolutely, to modify, share or do with as we wish – whether it is bought and paid for, or is given by someone who owns it. Furthermore, if someone chooses to make music publicly available through a radio or computer – without first getting a valid personal, voluntary agreement – then morally it is our choice what we do with it, including recording and sharing. Nobody forced them to make it publicly available on a radio station or the Internet

If they do not want anyone to copy it, let them keep it in the privacy of their own studio. This is exactly how concerts and cinemas operate and is one answer to the concern as to how artists can make money. Public appearances do generate big money for artists. For artists, the wider their recordings are distributed, the better known they become and the more people will likely attend a concert.

Also, if voluntary contributions can work well for many subway "buskers" and street musicians, there’s no reason this cannot work for other musicians. Low cost downloads and CD’s are another option, especially considering that a CD can be produced for pennies. Why would anyone want an mp3 copy if a high-quality original is cheap?

Yet, those in favor of intellectual property constantly trumpet, as the supposed moral high ground, that the big idea is to save the "entertainment industry." But what is really so good about a few huge corporations owning most of the media; elite media bosses choosing what is available to view or listen to; and a few big superstars. Below this artificial corporate hierarchy are the vast majority of musicians and artists. No matter how good they are, they are on the bottom because they haven’t been chosen by the elite. The only dream of many is the remote chance, like winning a lottery, that they will be chosen. In the present corporate hierarchical pyramid system, everyone is spoon fed by and controlled from the top.

Some people want to live and make a living in this environment and others just do not realize that this is not a normal state of affairs. Some, who may have climbed a way up the corporate wage-slave ladder, or depend on one of the corporations in some way, may hate what I am saying, because it is an immediate term threat. But when big media giants downsize, this is good not bad: the tentacles are unwinding and more "slaves" are released to do something more productive – like maybe start their own business or make their own music. Let us all start looking at the big picture and let things "rip."

I had one very satisfied customer whose computer I had just repaired who turned sour on me after the train of conversation led to these matters. He was a seventies producer who now frittered away his time on fanciful projects while living on residual income from a few hits back then….

Popular support can free up the system, and millions of file sharers are doing just that. The more things adapt to this free market, the more ordinary artists can find free market ways to earn money – if they are good enough. Aside from live concerts, once prices come down to a reasonable level, original CD’s or fast convenient downloads will sell like hot cakes and there may be little demand for "piracy," so-called. Music lovers can have much more music for their money. Compared to current output, standards and trends could only improve. Large media giants would be obsolete and the artists could all make more money in accordance with how much they are enjoyed, without the oppressive middlemen.

Finally, we have been talking about morality a lot, so what does the Bible say about intellectual "property"?

The answer is… nothing.

That is, you will not find any scripture, Old or New Testament, referring to "intellectual property." You will find a lot against the power of the State, however. I recommend a thorough, slow reading of 1 Samuel Chapter 8 and beyond to start with. This will show you that government is not God’s idea at all. According to this chapter, it is idolatry and slavery, tolerated by God rather than endorsed and given a strict limit of toleration at 10% of surplus. Governments today are close to 50% and in some cases beyond.

Those who love rules, regulations and generally directing other people’s affairs, should think about whether they are willing to use violent force against people who do not want such direction. Or in the case of artists, against their customers, who may wish to do as they choose with that they have purchased.

That is the nature of government – violence. Can't see that? Then, as a totally innocent person, try publicly ignoring a minor bureaucratic order you disapprove of and are satisfied is unsound and unjust. Then ignore the court that fines you. Then resist officers coming to take your goods. Finally, resist the police who come with guns…. Get the point now?

Normal people would not personally use violent force against others who do not follow their whims, ideas and opinions. Nor would they personally invade a person’s house, armed to the teeth, and demand money – even in the name of assisting a poor person they profess to "care" about (i.e., the "social justice" doctrine). Christians then, should stop supporting, voting and campaigning for a gang to do it for them. They should not be accomplices and in "covenant" with such people – including politicians. A good start would be to avoid mainstream media documentaries, debates and "news" advocating one person’s "expert" opinion being imposed on another by force and/or through another person’s money being confiscated.

The threat of violence and the force of the State (if the State is to exist at all – there was none for 450 years under the Old Testament ideal – see Acts 13:19–21) is to be reserved for actual wrongdoers, not to control the innocent. This limitation is always mentioned in the major New Testament references to civil rulers. Politicians and rulers are not authorized to decide what is right and wrong – that comes from God alone. Nor do they have the God-given authority of a parent over a child or a master over a slave.

That doctrine, once again widely held, used to be called the "divine right of kings." Both the English and especially the American revolutions were fought over it – and thank God it was then defeated. But, unlike early church teaching, many of today’s Christians claim we should obey rulers totally; that the State is effectively a manifestation of God in the flesh – unless and until the government actually makes us do something wrong (as they understand it). This might be a doctrine for a slave on a plantation, but not for free people made in the image of God to "reign in life as kings through… Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:17). We are told plainly "do not yield yourselves as slaves to men" (1 Corinthians 7:23) and that, "the rulers of the ungodly lord it over them… but it shall not be so among you" (Luke 22:25). The whole book of Galatians is dedicated to the concept that even the God-given rules and regulations of the Old Testament were temporary and now obsolete, how much more the secular/pagan rules of modern governments.

Romans chapter 13 was abused by Hitler to neutralize Christian resistance and was written on the floor of the totalitarian Roman tax collection offices. I recommend reading that most misquoted of scriptures again several times, prayerfully. If it is not clear to you what a "wrongdoer" is, go and read the Ten Commandments – you’ll find them in Exodus 20. Where do Christians get the idea they can decide right and wrong for themselves, or worse, ask corrupt politicians to decide? What has right and wrong to do with wearing seatbelts, obeying speed limits or thousands of other rules and regulations and why do so many support the use of force against the innocent in these ways?

Romans says there is "no authority except God’s" – that is, if it is not God’s law it has no proper authority (but we should be prudent…for the Lord’s sake and our own…) Only in so far as the state is punishing an actual wrongdoer should we support (including by taxation) any action from our conscience rather than just prudently comply due to the threat of official "wrath."

Regarding prudence in the face of an immediate tax demand, Jesus enlightened his disciples when He said in Matthew 17:26 "the children of the king don't have to pay taxes… but we don't want to make these tax collectors angry… pay the tax for you and me."

January 28, 2009